The Many Faces of Mr. Ripley

In the current issue of The Christian Century I review the new novel Social Creature by Vox religion writer Tara Isabella Burton. It’s a story of class-climbing, personal reinvention, and murder in the vein of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. But Burton’s novel is very much of our time. The protagonists–hard-working and desperate Louise Wilson, louche and privileged Lavinia Williams–navigate a world of economic precarity, compulsive self-expression, and evanescent social capital:

But Social Creature does more than cleverly and stylishly recapitulate classic genre forms. It casts a bright, cold light on the vulnerabilities Lavinia and Louise leave open to each other, and on the endlessly self-amusing milieu in which both can be exploited.

For Louise, spurred by shapeless ambitions and chronic financial need, love and friendship become indistinguishable from casual and precarious labor. A reliable tutoring client breaks up with her suddenly—he’s been assured of a squash-team acceptance to Dartmouth—then salves the blow to her income with an extra fifty. Like a bad Tinder assignation, he’s “back on his phone before Louise even leaves the room.” Lavinia requires and pays for emotional labor, and Louise ruthlessly optimizes herself to provide it.

This end-stage interpersonal capitalism can’t survive the full and explicit knowledge of both women.

I read the book compulsively. It’s well done, to be sure, but to no small degree I’m just a huge sucker for this genre: Ripley, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, all the way back to Crime and Punishment if you want to go there. I can remember sitting in the Pick Me Up Cafe nearly two decades ago, plowing through Ripley and realizing how deftly Highsmith had gotten me to identify with him.

There is of course nothing noteworthy about liking stories that create puzzles or traps for their characters to escape. The suspense novels I gobbled up in my teen years (early Grisham –> The Thirty-Nine Steps –> Six Days of the Condor) work in the same way without beckoning the reader to root for the killer. And really there’s nothing unusual in identifying with bad guys, either. The heyday of anti-hero television offers abundant examples of wrongdoers of every stripe sucking us in simply because they have the strongest point of view for us to follow around (this before weighing the darker factors that would get us to want anything good to happen to, say, Tony Soprano).

But these murder novels are different inasmuch as the murders are all somehow about something. Something that real-life murders are almost never about. Tom Ripley and Richard Papen are interlopers in more leisured classes than their own, and most readers probably know what that’s like. It can prompt envy, certainly, but also the insight that one knows things that they don’t know, that there are skills they’ve never had to develop.

So it’s not just that they’re murderers, even murderers of useless children of wealth, but that they turn their social weakness into an interpersonal strength. These murder stories are like con artist stories with higher stakes. The character who can pick up the mannerisms of his or her betters and use that knowledge against them is profoundly compelling.

Some day I would like to write at greater length about con artists, pious frauds, and holy fools. Until then, you might read this old piece of mine on how to con pastors:

Moving on: don’t talk about money early in the pitch. If you can avoid it, don’t talk about it at all. Remember that we didn’t get into this line of work to hand out cash to people, we don’t really like dealing with money (unless we’re crooked ourselves, in which case good luck), and many of us are weighed down by our personal and institutional need of it. The sooner money comes up, the sooner we figure out that something’s suspicious.

On the other hand, do stick with a compelling story. Here’s what we, often as not, did get into this line of work to do: to hear people’s stories. Give us a good, meaty problem—not something outlandish but something likely to be outside our daily experience. Get us en­grossed in the story so we’re looking for ways to help. Make sure to repeat some bad religious advice you got from another pastor, which bank-shots our desire to help off of our vocational vanity.

We don’t want to give out money, but we do want to provide counsel, forgive sins, give aid, make calls on people’s behalf. If you’ve got a good story and—this is crucial—you tell it in a disorganized, nonlinear fashion, reluctantly dropping new and fascinating details, you stand a good chance of really engaging your target.

Doing this plausibly is enormously difficult. Even a youngish pastor like me has heard a lot of crap and is not as bad at detecting it as you might think. The short con requires good acting and patience, because the most effective play is one that leaves the mark to suggest giving the money—especially as an alternative to doing something more difficult.

A confidence game is just a performance in which the fourth wall is totally demolished. Enjoy!



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